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Eye-opening appeal of Zen-style branding

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

BOULDER — Post-modern culture may have left cowboy days and ways in the dust.

But cattle prods come in many forms. From alarm clocks to telephones, shrill sounds tell new millennium folk to get a move on it.

Some, however, have turned a deaf ear on buzzing and ringing in favor of acoustic tones emitted from Now & Zen clock and telephone products.

In 1995, founder Steve McIntosh launched his business in Longmont to bring this bit of Himalayan ambiance home.

“But I don’t make any woo woo claims, like that it cleanses your aura,” he said.

Instead, McIntosh designed a clock to wake sleepers up gently to an historically sacred sound, a Tibetan bell-like chime, in his quest to brand truth-and-beauty inspired products.

The initial chime reverberates a minute before fading.

Three-and-a half minutes later, it chimes again and is soon followed by more frequent chimes. After 10 minutes, the clock chimes every 4 seconds unless switched off.

One customer became so enraptured by the pleasant morning ritual she wrote an “Ode to the Zen Alarm Clock” and mailed it to the company, McIntosh said.

The triangular-shaped Zen Alarm Clock debuted in 1996 and, despite the somewhat alarming $100 price, Now & Zen has sold approximately 120,000 of them.

The clock can also be set to softly partition time for everything from yoga sessions to business meetings.

In December, the company unveiled another potential hot seller — the Tibetan Phone Bell — for $120. Though it plugs into a conventional land line, it is centuries apart from Ma Bell devices.

The six-inch-diameter Tibetan-style brass bowl sits on an maple or oak platform and instead of jangling, it gongs every five seconds.

It also can be used as a countdown timer.

After setting up shop in Longmont, McIntosh — who has also worn hats as a Celestial Seasonings executive, investment banker, lawyer and author — discovered the toughest part of the business turned out to be production.

He couldn’t find anyone to make the chimes then, so he and a small crew learned to cut, polish and tune them to the exact frequencies.

But with orders quickly multiplying from hundred to thousands, in 1998 he moved the company to an 11,000-square foot space in Gunbarrel and contracted some piecemeal work.

However, by this May 14, when doors open at 1638 Pearl St. — Now & Zen’s first retail space — all production will take place in southern China.

“That’s where Zen originated,” he said. “And it’s not a sweatshop.”

Forty percent of Now & Zen’s business comes from a combination of Internet, call center and retail mail order sources. Sixty percent comes from wholesale — about half of that from catalogues and half from mom-and-pop shops, McIntosh said.

But having both “bricks and clicks” — especially since the 700-square foot sales floor is on Boulder’s main drag — should rearrange the sales profile, he said.

“Of course, Boulder is the headquarters for this type of culture,” he said.

The company has been “permanently profitable” since 2001, McIntosh added, and is on track for 10 percent annual growth, though that is down from the original business plan, which called for 30 percent annual growth before the dot com crash.

“It was harder to get venture capitalists than I thought,” he said.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.